New England Patriots (2-4) at Buffalo Bills (5-2)
I had a lot of confidence in the Patriots last week. The Patriots started 2-1, easily defeating capable teams in the Raiders and Dolphins and coming up just short on the road in Seattle. Then their COVID outbreak happened, costing them starting quarterback Cam Newton for a game in Kansas City that it looked like the Patriots would have won had Newton been able to play and then the following week costing them significant practice time and several offensive linemen from an already injury plagued group, leading to the Patriots’ upset home loss to the Denver Broncos.
With a healthy offensive line and a normal week of practice, I expected the Patriots would bounce back to their early season form, but instead they had easily their worst performance of the year, getting blown out at home 33-6 by the 49ers in a game in which the Patriots lost the first down rate battle by 6.58% and really didn’t do anything well on either side of the ball. Making matters even worse, the Patriots have been bit by the injury bug over the past week. The Patriots’ offensive line is much more complete than it’s been for most of the season, but they’ll be without their top-2 wide receivers this week from an already thin group, as well as several other questionable players, most notably top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who seems unlikely to play after a mid-week injury.
Given the disparity between how the Patriots played early in the season and how they’ve played recently, it’s tough to know what to make of this team, but it seems like the general public is completely ignoring their early season success and just focusing on their recent struggles, leading to them being 4-point underdogs in Buffalo against a Bills team that will have minimal homefield advantage and that was also better early in the season than they’ve been in recent weeks. The Bills started 4-0, with competitive wins over quality teams like the Raiders and Rams, but then they lost back-to-back games by multiple scores against tougher opponents in the Titans and Chiefs and last week they had trouble with a Jets team that had previously lost by at least 9 points to every team they’d faced all season.
The Bills obviously have a better record than the Patriots, but they’re much closer together than their records suggest in terms of point differential (-4 vs. -28) and first down rate differential (+0.60% vs. +0.51%), even though the Bills have played a below average schedule, while the Patriots have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league. When schedule adjustments are taken into account, the Patriots actually have a significant lead in first down rate differential, ranking 11th at 1.65%, while the Bills rank 23rd at -1.11%. Of course, if the Patriots come out and play like they did last week again, it won’t matter than they’ve been better statistically than the Bills this season, just like it didn’t matter that they had a statistical edge over the 49ers going into last week, but I don’t expect the Patriots to come out flat like that in back-to-back weeks, especially since this is a must win game for the Patriots against a division rival.
In fact, if either of these teams comes out flat again this week like they did last week, it’s likely to be the Bills, as the Bills still were able to pick up the win last week because of their easy competition and would still hold a healthy divisional lead even if they lose this game. This isn’t to say the Bills are going to look past the Patriots, who they’ve been trying to get past for years, but the Bills have another tough game on deck against the Seahawks, while the Patriots get the Jets next, so the Patriots are much more likely to be fully focused than the Bills, especially given the results of last week.
Underdogs cover at a 62.7% rate before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs and all three of those are likely to be the case in this one. On top of that, teams are 115-67 ATS as underdogs since 1989 before being road favorites of 4 or more, which the Patriots will be in New York next week (-7 on the early line). There is too much injury uncertainty for me to lock in a bet on the Patriots now, but if their inactives list is favorable and/or the Bills’ isn’t, the Patriots are worth a bet this week. I will have an update before gametime most likely.
Update: Gilmore is out for the Patriots, but I was expecting that. The bigger news is that their other questionables are playing, most importantly JC Jackson, who will be their new #1 cornerback in Gilmore’s absence, while the Bills will be without safety Micah Hyde. Despite that, this line has dropped to 4.5, likely due to the Gilmore news, so the Patriots are worth a bet this week. The Bills haven’t been much better than the Patriots have been lately and the Patriots played better against tougher competition earlier in the year.
Buffalo Bills 24 New England Patriots 23
Pick against the spread: New England +4.5